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Arab normalisation with Israel is part of a passing phase

August 30, 2022 at 12:00 pm

An aerial view shows an empty white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba, due to the coronavirus pandemic in Makkah’s Grand Mosque on 6 March 2020P [BANDAR ALDANDANI/AFP/Getty Images]

The Imam of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, Sheikh Ṣaliḥ Ibn ʻAbd Allāh Ibn Ḥumayd, prayed to the Almighty during the Friday prayer last week, to “bring annihilation upon the plundering and occupying Jews [sic]” and to protect the Muslims from their evil. The supplications of the former speaker of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council are seen by many as a sudden diversion from his country’s position on relations with Israel.
Contrary to the claims made by the pro-Israel Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a website which homes in on negative statements and news about Jews, this is not a case of anti-Semitism. Putting the sheikh’s words in such a context is misleading. Bin Humayd did not refer to all Jews, or “the Jews”. He was very specific with his reference to “the plundering and occupying Jews.” It was clear that this was a political message about Israel and its policies, seizing the opportunity of the recent Israeli onslaught on the besieged Gaza Strip to make it.

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As is well known, in Saudi Arabia there is no space for personal opinions on political and even social issues. Religious scholars who chose not to support Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s policies on the Qatar crisis, for example, are still in jail, even though they did not openly oppose his policies. Sheikh Salman Al-Ouda is one of them; he has more than ten million followers on Twitter. Sheikh Saleh Bin Mohammed Al-Talib was an Imam at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and serving as a judge in the city’s District Court when he was imprisoned in August 2018 for “challenging mixed [gender] public gatherings”. Within hours of his arrest, his English and Arabic Twitter accounts were deactivated. Just a few days ago he was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Does this mean that Bin Salman has changed his position on Gaza, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine? Most probably not, as Saudi Arabia did not react in such a way following fiercer and more destructive Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.

During the recent visit to Saudi Arabia by US President Joe Biden, it was obvious that Bin Salman was cold towards him. Putting to one side the difference between that cold reception and the generosity and hospitality with which Donald Trump was received by the prince and his father, local media reflected Saudi schadenfreude, with bragging that nobody could ever isolate Saudi Arabia, and that Biden had to swallow his pride and seek Riyadh’s help on oil production and other important international issues.
Bin Salman once said that his father’s house manager was a zealous Ethiopian Jew and she brought him up, just to get the attention and sympathy of American Jews. He even endorsed the Abraham Accords, which aim at “integrating” Israel in the Arab world. There were leaks that he worked hand in hand with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to undermine Jordan’s custodianship of Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy places in occupied Palestine.

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The crown prince apparently built a very close relation with Kushner, Netanyahu and Trump just to boost his chances in the scramble for the Saudi throne on his father’s death. He also guaranteed that the White House would not oppose him in his conflict with Qatar, the war in Yemen and the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi. What’s more, he bought unnecessary military equipment worth $200 billion from the Americans while investing another $2bn with Kushner.

As the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Bin Salman feels more secure, and he knows perfectly well that the US is not the country it used to be and that it is failing, as his friend Trump described it. Moreover, Biden’s visit proves that the prince has become indispensable for America, and immune to the usual US blackmail, having become expert in manipulating the balance of power in Washington. The humiliating US withdrawal from Afghanistan, America’s ongoing confrontation with Russia in Ukraine and the anticipated challenge from China have all helped in this respect. Bin Salman has a free hand to strike deals with Russia and China and might suddenly strike his own deal with neighbouring Iran. The US is doing it, so why not Saudi Arabia?

In short, his need for Israel as the best path to the White House has ended, because his need for American support has receded. Why, therefore, should he accept Washington’s plans for Israel to be the regional hegemon? Why can’t Saudi Arabia fill that role? It is likely that we will see gradual Saudi discomfort with Israel, and more statements like that of Sheikh Bin Humayd’s.

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Elsewhere in the region, it is clear that the Israelis are not very happy with how the relationship with the UAE has evolved. They were expecting that the UAE would shower them with multi-billion dollar projects, but it hasn’t. To make things worse, Israeli police humiliated Emirati visitors in front of the cameras, suspecting them to be terrorists and spreading them on the ground before putting their knees on their necks and handcuffing them. The backlash in the UAE was inevitable, and a recent poll suggests that the majority of Emiratis oppose relations with Israel. People who are considered to be very much part of the establishment in Abu Dhabi, such as Dhahi Khalfan Tamim and Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, have tweeted comments against Israel, sending the message that the relationship is not as stable and permanent as the Americans and the Israelis would have liked.

The conclusion to draw from this is that Arab relations with Israel were seen merely as the gateway to Washington. As long as the US remains the only superpower, and as long as Israel has influence on Capitol Hill, such relations will continue. As soon as the situation changes, though, Arab relations with Israel will disappear as fast as snow in the desert. They are part of a passing phase.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.